When I started birding, the only types of plumages (the feathers on a bird) I used were juvenile, fall/winter and breeding. Since then there has been a good deal of research on plumage changes, and along with that, name changes. I find many of these changes a bit more complicated than I would like, so I probably will continue being old fashioned and not scientifically correct.

Now, I will try to sort these changes out. To be exactly correct, I would have to go into a huge dissertation about molt. Briefly, molt is the shedding of old feathers and the growth of new. So when a young bird is born and gets its first “suit of clothes,” that is the juvenile plumage. When this “suit of clothes” is shed (molted), the next set of feathers is called formative plumage (first winter plumage). There can be a total change of feathers or just partial, and these various degrees have other names, which I am not going to bother with. Next in this example is the prealternate molt of feathers, which produces a plumage known as the alternate plumage, or breeding plumage. This, in most cases, is the brightest and most colorful of the bird plumages, although there are exceptions to all rules. Some birds go from juvenile-formative-alternate plumages in one year. Others take several years.

Now, the adult birds in alternate (breeding) plumage go through another molt called the prebasic molt which produces, yes, you guessed it, basic plumage (second winter plumage). This, and in some cases the formative plumage, is what results in the plumages of our confusing fall warblers as they ready themselves for their fall migration.

So, by using the old terms, I am skipping a molt or two, and if someone asked me the age of the black terns that Lanny sent the photos of, I might not be able to tell their exact age by their plumage, except for the handsome jet-black bird that is in alternate or breeding plumage. The other two are tough. I might suggest that both birds are in formative plumages; the one on the right — second year formative, and the one on the left — a first year, but I wouldn’t want to stake my life on it. Others might suggest the one on the left may be in juvenile plumage, and the one on the right in formative plumage. Would love feedback!

Bird Sightings:

Black tern in flight at Norton Point, sporting full breeding plumage. — Lanny McDowell

Sarah Mayhew photographed an Eastern kingbird at Quansoo on July 8. It had a yellowish tinge on the after half of its belly. A year or so ago Lanny McDowell and I were at the Farm Institute and had a quick glimpse of a kingbird that had the same yellow tinge. We puzzled over this bird, and we tried to make it into a tropical kingbird. No photo was taken, so we never made an official ID. Now that Sarah has a photo of an Eastern kingbird with the yellowish coloration, we can surmise that the bird we saw in the past was as indeed a juvenile Eastern kingbird. The interesting thing is that none of my field guides show this plumage.

Also on July 8, Liz Baldwin and one of her Biodiversity interns, Jessie Frascotti, were checking out the shorebirds nesting around Edgartown Great Pond and discovered a royal tern. Jessie also spotted and IDed a marbled godwit. Good going, Jessie!

On July 10 Lanny McDowell was at Norton Point and photographed two whimbrels flying over the TTOR guard house at the entrance of Norton Point. Further along he found a greater yellowlegs, a laughing gull and counted three black terns. Then, Lanny went over to Sengekontacket Pond where he photographed three least sandpipers and counted and photographed several of the 20 short-billed dowitchers he spotted.

On July 11 Jeff Bernier took some excellent photographs of semipalmated sandpipers at Little Beach that showed the “semipalmation” (partial webbing) of their feet.

Also on July 11, the Chalfin-Jacobs family (Max 11, Sophie 14 and parents Sharon and Mike) was birding at Norton Point. They found a single ruddy turnstone and counted seven black terns as well as seeing all the nesting and visiting species of shorebirds and terns. The family birded all week and found two belted kingfishers, a green heron and a great egret at Ice House Pond. At James Pond they found three spotted sandpipers a snowy egret and two more belted kingfishers. Finally, the family heard a screech owl on Manaquyak Road.

On July 12 Lanny McDowell, Ken Magnuson and I ventured out to Norton Point. We found the regulars, including eight skimmers and five American oystercatchers, but also found four greater yellowlegs, 14 least sandpipers, four black terns in various plumages and a pre-basic, or fall plumage, Foster’s tern. Later in the day Jeff Bernier went out to Norton Point by kayak and took more photos of the skimmers, Foster’s tern and black terns. At Little Beach, Jeff took elegant shots of least sandpipers feeding. Jeff also took shots of black terns in transitional plumage.

Rob Culbert and birding group were observing birds on Little Beach from the ramp at Eel Pond on July 12. He found all of the regulars as well as two spotted sandpipers in breeding plumage. Unfortunately, Rob and crew watched as a dog not on a leash chased a baby least tern, caught it and took it into the water where he dropped it. The tern did swim to shore, but who knows if it survived. It anyone sees a dog chasing birds, and particularly if they are catching young birds, they should call the animal control officer of that town. If the officer is not available, call Liz Baldwin of Biodiversity Works at 508-494-0061.

On July 13 Sharon Simonin sent fun photos of both male and female great-crested flycatchers that were using a bird box that had obviously been “reworked” by a gray squirrel — resulting in a large, messy entrance hole.

Tara Whiting watched an eastern Phoebe drinking dew drops off her porch on Tisbury Great Pond on July 15. The night before, Tara heard the quawks of the black-crowned night herons as they flew by to hunt the shores of Tisbury Great Pond.

Bill Post spotted two male hairy woodpeckers, a male red-bellied woodpecker and a great blue heron at Felix Neck on July 14.

Larry Hepler spotted a green heron below our house on Tisbury Great Pond on July 13 and Bob Fogelson, Flip Harrington and I were pleased that our hummingbirds are back; Bob’s at Quenames and ours at our Tisbury Great Pond home.

Please report your bird sightings to birds@mvgazette.com.
Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is vineyardbirds2.com.